Joker (2019) Review

A must-see character study that sets itself outside of comic book cinema norms but falls slightly short of perfection. No spoilers!

As a massive fan of the Joker, I have been waiting to see Todd Phillips’s Joker ever since production was announced. The film is really a drama more than any other genre, providing us with a case study on the life of Arthur Fleck. Joker not only serves as a character study, but more so a standalone story. As such, the film follows the development of Fleck in a captivating yet troubling setting.

The worry of casting an actor for a well-established character is that they have to succeed the expectations of the viewer. Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, and he plays him well. In a sense, the Joker only enters the film toward to its end, so it is not helpful to compare Phoenix to the Jokers of previous actors. If I had to pick the series where Phoenix’s Joker would be most likely to exist, it would most probably be Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series.

The Joker, as a DC character, personified showmanship. He’s fanciful and carries out his various misdoings with flare. He is the entertainer. So, how do you put somebody like that into a gritty, realistic rendering? The Joker was created as a comic book character, so he doesn’t have to make a whole lot of sense. We know he has a penchant for green hair and weapons disguised as magic tricks, but the Joker’s most personifying characteristic is his laugh. 

© Warner Bros

So, why does the Joker laugh? There are a few reasons. Firstly, he has to embody the oppositeness of the stoic, uppity Batman. Secondly, he exemplifies the chaotic and the unpredictable. In this sense, his laughing outbursts serve to unnerve the reader. Todd Phillips concern is to fit the chaos of the Joker, as well as the hardened streets of Gotham, into what needs to be a somewhat believable story.

As a result, Phillips introduces Fleck’s laughter as a non-descript condition. The larger scale effect of this shows the spectator that Fleck’s mental response and physical response are misaligned, something that goes onto become a major plot device. There is an argument that the Joker’s laughter is overused throughout the film, but I think the relentlessness of his uncontrollable laughing is permissive. The length of his fits of laughter are stretched out and repeated often enough to the point of discomfort, unease, and even annoyance. I actually think this is a very clever storytelling device from Phillips because it allows the spectator to share some of the same emotions as Arthur but on a much smaller scale. 

As a character study, the plot of Joker is secondary to the overarching themes. There are many open-ended questions and comments that allow the audience to read into them as far as they want. If you are concerned this film will completely change your expectation of the Joker, I feel like it would only if you wanted it to. After all, this film is titled Joker and does little to discuss anything else. On the other hand, if you don’t root for him, you can decide whether you want to apply what was learned in this film onto other versions of the character. The tragedy of the Joker’s origin is revealed in many channels of the DC universe and ultimately this is just one more. After watching the film, I’m not entirely sure whether Joker wanted me to root for Arthur or pity him. I think it’s most likely a little bit of both. If you are a DC aficionado, then don’t watch Joker expecting a film full of easter eggs and hidden meanings – they are simply and purposefully not there, and when they are, they are largely superfluous.

© Warner Bros

Lawrence Sher, the cinematographer of Joker, has previously worked with Todd Phillips on films like The Hangover and War Dogs, so I really didn’t expect much by way of a visual experience. However, I was surprised to see that it looks as though a lot of thought and consideration was put into Joker’s visual style. The film did not overuse artsy closeups and over-the-top colour palettes, instead exercising moderation in order to achieve the most effective result of a scene. It’s stark, but not sterile. 

We know Gotham is modelled on New York City, and Todd Phillips’s Gotham is probably the most like NYC we’ve seen. It’s in a different universe to the Gotham Jack Nicholson inhabited in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. It still has decrepit buildings, imposing gothic architecture, and rainy days, but it’s a long way from Burton’s steaming landscape of the underworld. 

This being said, the main way Joker aligned itself with a general Batman-esque air was through it’s external story. A major part of the film is a rage at the system, and those who deliver its upkeep. It’s by no means an anti-capitalist picture – after all, this is a film that made almost $40m dollars on its opening day at the box office. Instead it’s more along the lines of a cautionary tale that warns “treat people with decency or they might turn into a villainous clown and terrorise your city.”   

© Warner Bros

The film’s soundtrack combined a mix of original scoring and compilation scoring, as was hinted by the trailers. Joker’s original score featured heavy use of stringed instruments and dissonance, the perfect blend of the Joker’s lust for the dramatic and intrigue of unpredictability. The exact time period Joker is set in is ambiguous, and it is largely described through the delivery of the film’s mise en scène and a receptive eye for contemporaneous 1980s detail. Joker is the first film I have seen in the cinema for a long time that has not been shot in widescreen. It’s become so normative now that I briefly thought the projection screen hadn’t been completely unfurled for a few seconds. It didn’t appear that the film lost anything by not being in widescreen, but I don’t think it achieved anything either. 

The two secondary characters in Joker are Penny Fleck, portrayed by Frances Conroy and Murray Franklin, portrayed by Robert De Niro. These characters have no development of their own, their only purpose is to allow the for the development of the Joker’s character study.

© Warner Bros

Overall, I really enjoyed Joker. I gave it four out of five stars because of one qualm I have with the film. I would have liked for it to have been a little bit more extreme. The Joker is an extreme character, and I think it would have been fantastic if the film was just a little more extreme in what it expected from the viewer. In this respect, maybe th Film was hindered a little by its 15 rating as I think if it would have pushed the boundaries of commercial cinema a little more, it would have been perfect.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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